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A Defense of YA Fiction

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Good day, Michigan Daily readers. I’d venture to guess that if you read this student newspaper, you probably read other things too. You know, books. Maybe even a few novels. Within these few novels, perhaps you’ve dipped your literary toe into the clean, cool waters of young adult literature (NOTE: these waters are subject to skinny dipping, Goblet of Fire mermaids and werewolves kissing humans who are in love with sparkling vampires. You have been warned).

In your adventures with young adult literature, or YA Lit, maybe you encountered classics like “Catcher in the Rye,” “The Outsiders,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and “The Giver.” These books are frequently featured on class syllabi, must-read lists, and rankings of the best books of all time.

Apart from these influential novels – that your parents probably read when they first came out – YA Lit has reached a second Golden Era of instant classics. Critically acclaimed novels like “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “The Book Thief,” “The Magicians,” and some out-of-the-way series about a boy wizard with an ugly forehead have brought teen literature to a position of prominence within the publishing industry. These novels consistently receive stellar reviews, feature on “Best Books of the Year” lists and even win prestigious honors, like the National Book Award.

And yet, despite recent success, YA Lit still faces its fair share of obstacles, specifically the ever-looming issue of public perception. Instead of regarding these novels as explorations into arguably the most turbulent and unpredictable time of a person’s life, skeptics of YA’s validity see the genre as immature, shallow and a breeding ground for flimsy plot. They claim that, more often than not, teen literature encourages two-dimensional characters and shallow writing. Unlike more traditional literary classics – the types you’d read in your upper level English class – young adult novels fail to seriously explore what it is to be human, dealing instead with “inconsequential” and juvenile questions like “Does she like me?” and “Does he like me?” In addition, many believe the YA industry is dominated by paranormal romances that also ask the questions listed above, save a single caveat: The teenagers are vampires or werewolves … or both.

The above arguments miss the point though. True, poor young adult novels are written every year. (Heck, I’ve even read a couple.) But remember, bad books are published in every genre, not just in teen fiction. Flat characters, shallow plot, and choppy prose are a result of poor writing, NOT the protagonist’s age. We have seen time and time again that neither age of the narrator nor the age of target audience play any factor in the quality of a book.

J.D. Salinger, one of the most influential American writers of the twentieth century (and perhaps ever), predominantly wrote about teenagers struggling with everything from relationships and sex to death and suicide. Does Salinger’s exploration of the former make his work less meaningful? Of course not. Like the best writers of his day, Salinger’s prose flowed from the page like water from a tap, gripping his readers and forcing them to hang on his every mysterious publication.

Now, some may criticize contemporary YA Lit as diverging from the Salinger model by using these issues without addressing “deeper” concerns like the brevity and tragedy that is the “human condition.” I offer this to you though: The little issues are what it means to be human. Does he like me? Does she like me? These questions bounce around our brains like lottery balls. Young adult novels explore these questions and more. And that is what is so great about teen fiction: the unironic examination of adolescence and life beyond adolescence. Why doesn’t she like me? Will I ever meet anyone? What is my future? Who will I become? How should I live my life? What is a good life? And for that matter, what is death?

These questions drive young adult literature into what it is today: a thriving industry on the rise. A genre in which an honest exploration of what it means to be anything at all is valued above unnecessary complexity. Through this examination, unique plot, unforgettable characters and captivating prose pours out the faucet into the cool, not-so-calm YA waters where the deep end isn’t just for adults.



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Exiled Empress said...
May 16 at 4:01 pm:
Excellent article!  Those who assume YA material is superficial perhaps think teens or young adults themselves are not fully-formed and therefore can be dismissed or ignored...which is always a mistake. They are deep thinkers and searchers. Would that more of them reach fulfilling destinations. Writers of the very best YA literature are to be treasured.
 
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